Mount Diablo (South Gate Road climb)
In case you've somehow failed to hear this already, the summit of Mount Diablo is one of the highest peaks around the Bay Area. (Only Mount Hamilton and a few peaks surrounding it are higher.) In fact, since Mount Diablo is a free-standing mountain rather than being "yet another peak" along a set of high ridges, it's probably justified to call it the "largest mountain in the Bay Area" despite the fact that its peak is not the highest. Moreover, for the same reason, it carves a much more imposing figure on the horizon from many points in the Bay Area. Wikipedia explains that a real estate promoter once hyped the view from the peak of this mountain as being the second greatest surface area that can be seen from any peak in the world. While that claim was not true, it's still impressive enough in having one of the largest "viewsheds" in the western United States.
This is the way of getting to the peak of Mount Diablo for those who opt to do it from around Danville (because it can also be done via North Gate Road from Walnut Creek). It's an out-and-back road ride from a starting point chosen mainly for the convenience of parking. Mentally, the route to the peak can be considered to consist of two distinct segments. The longer one of these is the 11 miles that begin when you turn onto Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard, which is what most cyclists would consider "the Mount Diablo climb". The 3.5 miles before that is more of an "approach" portion. The latter mostly has much more modest slopes and is necessitated really only by parking considerations. That's because I didn't like the parking options available around the beginning of Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard. There are plenty of minor residential streets in that area; so you could park in front of someone's home on a side street around there if you want to. But, I felt that a more considerate thing to do would be to start from an area with more public parking available.
In its form shown here, the ride begins from the parking lot of the Blackhawk Plaza shopping center. I'm always hesitant to take up parking spaces of businesses for a bike ride, but you can easily soothe your conscience by patronizing one of the eateries at this complex for lunch at the end of your ride, such as the excellent Blackhawk Grille or the more affordable The Little Pear, or even Starbucks. Moreover, the part of the parking lot that is closest to the intersection of Blackhawk Road and Camino Tassajara features two banks and one or two other non-retail businesses, which means that this corner of the parking lot could be expected to be less in demand on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.
The directions for the ride could hardly be simpler: After you do a right turn from Blackhawk Road onto Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard, all you need to do is continue picking the uphill option whenever you're faced with a choice. You'll get very few opportunities to exercise that tip, because the only junction worth mentioning on the way to the peak is the one where South Gate Road and North Gate Road meet.
The asphalt of Blackhawk Road is very coarse and somewhat bumpy. There is no marked bike lane on this road, but the right-hand lane is wide enough to leave sufficient space for bicycles, especially after it goes down from four lanes to two. Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard has much smoother pavement. This road quickly transforms into South Gate Road, which takes you to Summit Road, which then takes you all the way to the peak. South Gate Road and Summit Road are moderately narrow mountain roads. Their traffic is very light and not very fast. (The speed limit is often 15 or 20 MPH.) You are likely to encounter many more cyclists than cars on these roads on a day with good weather and my impression was that they are quite safe for biking. There are plenty of campgrounds and at least two ranger stations on the way to the peak, allowing plenty of restroom opportunities and water sources. On the other hand, that any given one of these will have water available when you need it is not necessarily a sure thing, so some flexibility will be wise if you'll plan to replenish your water supply during the ride.
I'd describe the difficulty of the climb as "tough but not unreasonable". The grade is actually not excessive. Before the last three miles to the peak, the grade of the climb is always at or below 7%. The biggest thing that makes the climb tough is that it goes on and on. You're essentially in climbing mode for nearly 11 miles. The only exception to this is a nearly half-mile stretch where you continue flatly and can even coast a little, shortly after the South Gate where the road has crossed to the other side of a ridge labeled "Fossil Ridge" on the topographic map. Ignoring that half-mile stretch would easily make this the longest unbroken climb of any ride on this website. Still, as far as "big and impressive mountain climbs" go, this could probably be considered to be one of the more manageable ones in our area. The Mount Hamilton climb is the only other contender for this title that I'm aware of; Mount Hamilton maintains even more reasonable climbing grades but is significantly longer.
The tougher parts of this climb start arriving in the last three miles to the peak, as I've alluded to above. First, you encounter a half-mile stretch beginning just before you reach the Toyon and Round Top picnic areas during which the grade averages a hair under 9%. You only get a half-mile reprieve after that where the grade backs off to around 5%, before the steeper grade is resumed and you cover just over a mile at an average grade between 8 and 8.5 percent. That last segment ends at the curve nicknamed Devil's Elbow, which is the last hairpin turn before the peak. However, the climb saves its steepest slope for the very end. The last 500 feet (of distance) to the parking lot at the peak has a grade of about 15% by my calculation and feels like an insult in the final seconds of the ride after 11 miles of climbing and nearly 3500 feet of elevation gain. At least that last climb isn't any longer than it is and after you ride, walk, or crawl those last few hundred feet, victory awaits.
I'm sure I don't have to tell you that the views on this ride are fantastic. They start early, too. Shortly after you start gaining elevation, some views start opening up. Initially, you see little more than the residences around Blackhawk, but even that is a pretty nice landscape. As you get higher, you begin to see neighboring cities and eventually the far corners of the Bay Area. There are only a couple of segments of the climb where the views are interrupted. One of these is the mile or so that starts at South Gate where the road follows the northern slopes of Fossil Ridge and has patchy tree cover, which also happens to include the biggest flattish break you get in the climb to the peak. There's another such half mile or so starting from Curry Point where the road similarly follows the northern slopes of another ridge for a bit, along with its increased tree cover. Then the views get more expansive and less interrupted the higher up you go.
Once you reach the summit, you'll definitely want to spend some time in the visitor center, at least if this is your first time there. Not only are there informative exhibits there about the mountain, its history and ecology, as well as observation decks atop the building with views in every direction, but there is also ice cream, candy bars, granola bars, and soft drinks available here (downstairs), not to mention the fact that the actual physical peak of the mountain is exposed in one spot inside this particular building. So, you may want to bring a lock with you, unless you'll be okay with leaving your bike unlocked outside while you're in there. The last time I visited, there was also a fountain outside where you can refill your bottles as well.
Needless to say, the views from the peak are phenomenal. Try to pick a particularly clear day for your ride (shortly after some rain, perhaps) and they should be quite simply jaw dropping. Unfortunately, this particular ride was done on a day when the highest elevations of the climb were wrapped in clouds. So, the photo set linked from this page has no samples of those great views from the peak. As a stand-in, take a look at the shots from the peak included in the photo set for the "Mount Diablo (North Gate Road climb)" ride listed here. I've read claims that Half Dome at Yosemite is within line of sight of this peak (and used to state that on this page for some time), however, Wikipedia asserts that it isn't but that Sentinel Dome in Yosemite is. If you plan to spot it, here's a helpful hint: Aim for a (corrected) heading of around 93 degrees...
Don't forget that the return half of your ride will involve an 11-mile, almost-unbroken descent. Unless you're doing your ride on a warm day (70 degrees or higher), you may be surprised by how chilly this can be. So, make sure you pick your clothing layers and your gloves accordingly. At the other extreme, if you'll be doing the ride in the summer, given the almost non-existent tree cover along most of the route, you can expect to suffer the worst of the East Bay heat, unless you start really early in the morning.
© Ergin Guney
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